Child with us now was with us then—
With M. when his mother danced
Handstands without underpants,
So now he cringes, as from a punch,
If anyone says cunt; with R. when her aunt
Yanked her hair into a stinging bun
And made her wear it that way every day;
With C. when his father crawled toward him,
Balls dangling through his boxer shorts
. . . Like pink bells, he murmurs to himself,
Till everyone in the room is murmuring,
Headfuls of muttering grownups,
The room silent, wishing it hadn’t heard,
Wishing it could take back what was said.
The room’s a clearing in a forest, circled
And circled and missed. A pine forest,
Resin-scent lifting from the floor of needles,
A face under every tree. The child on our left
Is whispering: don’t let them see you cry.
So R.’s tongue pushes out her bottom lip;
M. purses his, as if moistening a reed;
And C.’s mouth twists and seems to fill
With rotten meat. Meat of grief
Around the table where blame got passed
From plate to plate. We cross our legs,
Uncross our legs; tuck them underneath us.
A sister’s face, a brother’s face, the face
Of Mother looking at Dad’s face, Dad’s face
Glaring through the steam of his plate—
The child says to be looked at is to die.
And so we die, and return to the ghosts
Who wept and laughed down our hallways.
With the child’s ears we hear the keys
Pecking, adulterous, at the front lock;
The child’s nose sniffs alcohol, tobacco,
Sweat and talc drifting up the stairs
After all the ghosts have gone to bed;
With the child’s nerves we feel the cold
Spot inside memory. Each touch proves
The ghosts are real. Can’t you see
The ghosts are real? the child insists.
For a moment we don’t see, then we see.
Steven Cramer is the author of The Eye That Desires to Look Upward (1987) and The World Book (1992). He teaches at Bennington College. (1996)